Searching for Chametz1
Ask anyone who has readied a home for Pesach. Getting rid of the spaghetti and chocolate éclairs is easy. The tough part is ferreting out chametz in its insidious forms: a trace contribution here, a product prepared in chametz utensils there. It takes focus and concentration to keep track of all the places chametz ghosts could be lurking. Hunting them down takes energy and perseverance.
This is precisely the way it is supposed to happen. A phrase straight from the gemara and Shulchan Aruch defines both what halachah asks of us, and how we can wrap our heads around the underlying concept. We are told to search for chametz even “in crevices and cracks.”
Chametz, we are told, represents the evil impulse within us. The complex, laborious, time-consuming activities of searching for and destroying our chometz demonstrate to ourselves how meticulous we need to be in purging ourselves of our inner evil. We can begin by ridding ourselves of the obvious and apparent evils we harbor within, but we cannot end there. Evil is insidious. Like the invisible spores that waft through the air, settle on dough and ferment it into chametz, a microscopic contaminant of evil can sour an entire personality. Nothing less than dogged persistence must be applied against the more subtle forms of evil within us.
We are even less inclined to act against evil that remains entirely undetected. R. Mendel of Vitebsk’s words are telling. He cautions against feeling confident of a deep bond with Hashem when we find ourselves transgression-free. Such a finding is meaningless. Perhaps, he argues, we have not sinned simply because the challenge hasn’t presented itself. Or perhaps we remain untainted by a particular transgression because some external pressure, like embarrassment, prevents us from doing what we secretly would like to do, and not because we have harnessed or extirpated our evil impulses. It is quite possible, he says, that a person could live a righteous life, avoiding any activity that requires punishment, and yet learn that he failed in the chief task for which his neshamah descended to earth – addressing some evil trait that lurked within!
This is what Chazal mean when they say that biur chametz requires sereifah, burning. In dealing with our active misdeeds, it is often enough to firmly resolve never to commit the sin again. Evil roots within us, however, must be cauterized and burnt out.
Pesachim opens with the words, “On the eve of the fourteenth, we search for chametz.” R. Chaim Vital read this beyond its apparent meaning. Having completed thirteen years since his birth, a young Jew stands on the threshold of responsible Jewish adulthood. Going into his fourteenth year, he must examine himself for any faults that prevent him from becoming a full Jew. When a Jew utters the berachah in the morning thanking Hashem for not creating him as a non-Jew, he should ask himself if that berachah is fully merited. Is he entirely the Jew he is supposed to be? Is he truly free of foreign influences and habits?
Similarly, as a Jew readies himself for the approaching holiday of Pesach – the holiday that renews our peoplehood and special place each year – he must search for the internal chametz that blocks him from being the complete Jew that is his true role in life.
How can the search be effective, when we are supposed to go beyond looking for the evil that we know about? How can we recognize the more insidious evil roots, when a person often does not even know what he is looking for? Some of the answers emerge from the formal details of the halachah.
The law instructs us to search by the light of a lamp. We might have preferred the brightness of daylight, or the intensity of a large torch, but we turn down these options in favor of the simple, small lamp. Ner, the word for lamp, is spelled nun reish. These letters form an acronym for neshamah ruach, or two parts of the soul. If a person struggles as best he can to discover his primary root of evil, if he “searches as far as the hand can reach,” his soul will take him the rest of the way, and guide him to the truth. “The soul of a person will teach him.” A Jewish soul contains much wisdom; it knows the stuff it is made of, and can communicate back to its possessor.
Similarly, help comes from the Torah and mitzvos we have performed. The Zohar comments on the verse “or if he finds out that he has sinned:” “Who tells him? The Torah tells him!” The Zohar means that when a man’s power of reasoning is insufficient to discover the source of evil within him, he can expect help beyond the limits of his own intellect. The Torah he has studied, the mitzvos he has performed all leave an imprint within him. While a person may not feel their presence, they can be relied upon to light up the path of discovery for him. (This is alluded to in the Mishnah’s instruction to search for chametz “by the light of a lamp,” which resonates with “A mitzvah is a lamp, and Torah is light.” )
Other halachic details fall into place. While most forbidden items become permissible when mixed in with a much larger quantity of permitted material, chametz is different. The smallest amount of chametz contaminates a much larger mixture on Pesach.
Evil corrupts. No amount of it can be tolerated or safely dealt with. The yetzer hora acts like rot. The smallest quantity can infect healthy material, and spread its disease. Like gangrene to the body, it must be stopped, or it will take over.
We also understand, in a different way than we did above, why one opinion insists on eliminating chametz specifically by burning it. Toras Avos offers an analogy. Imagine a person who must clear a large stand of trees. Laboriously, his axe fells them, one at a time. After a while, he realizes that he can never complete the job in his lifetime.
He has another option. A controlled burn can clear a huge tract in a small amount of time. He can light a large fire that can burn all the unwanted trees in one vast conflagration.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, Pesach, pgs. 229-231
2. Pesachim 8A
3. Orach Chaim 431:1
4. Peri Ha-Aretz, Ki Sisa
5. Pesachim 5B
6. Pesachim 8A. The phrase describes the limit of responsibility in searching in hard to reach places.
8. Leviticus 4:23
9. Mishlei 6:23
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org